MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani and his colleagues Casey Leydon and Esther Lin were booted from UFC 199 on Saturday and banned from future UFC events, apparently in retaliation for Helwani having reported, a few hours before the UFC’s official announcement, that Brock Lesnar was in talks to fight at UFC 200 next month. Since being tossed, Helwani has gone on a media tour on which he’s been treated as a Great Ethics Haver, talking to SI’s Richard Deitsch and telling Dan Patrick that Fox Sports fired him “because the UFC told them to. That’s 100% fact.”
Today, though, on his own popular weekly broadcast The MMA Hour, Helwani went well past admitting to being a less than objective MMA journalist. In a surreal two-hour broadcast that ended with him crying while talking about his family fleeing to Canada from the Middle East under threat of persecution, Helwani admitted to having done things while covering the UFC for Fox Sports and Vox Media that would have gotten his ass thrown to the curb by any respectable media operation.
The biggest of these was admitting that his checks for appearing on Fox’s pre- and post-fight shows—checks which have since been cut off after Fox fired him at, he says, the UFC’s behest—were signed by Zuffa, UFC’s parent company. As Helwani explained it, his checks went from Fox to Zuffa to Helwani, and he accepted this, despite extensively describing how he learned in journalism school that this was absolutely something he shouldn’t have done:
The catch was that, for the pre and post fight shows, the check has to be signed by Zuffa. So, UFC Tonight is one contract, and that is a Fox production, Zuffa has nothing to do with that, but, even though Fox is paying the UFC for those broadcasts, weigh-in shows, post-fight shows, all that stuff, the money is going from Fox, to Zuffa, to the talent. ... The first class I ever took at [Syracuse University’s] Newhouse [School], in journalism, was journalism ethics, and they hammer that down your throat. There is like a rule that you can’t take anything above $30. I kid you not. Because you can’t owe them anything if you want to be unbiased.
There’s no reason to pretend that pre- and post-game shows are bastions of journalism righteousness, but this is categorically different than the tangled relationships broadcasters have with rights-holders. The NFL, for instance, severely influences how ESPN reports on concussions, and ESPN has a distinct interest in buffering the NFL’s reputation, but the NFL doesn’t directly cut checks to NFL reporters who appear on ESPN.
(Fox’s normally responsive and chatty PR department has gone silent in response to multiple requests to comment on Helwani’s claims.)
But admitting that he was paid by the organization he covered—admitting, in effect, to being a cog in UFC’s vast PR machinery, while working for Vox’s MMA Fighting as a nominally independent journalist—wasn’t all. Helwani spoke proudly of how UFC president Dana White once gave him explicit permission to pursue scoops (as if he needed White’s permission to do what was supposed to be his job) and also said that he would ask UFC fighters if they approved of certain questions before interviews, giving them veto power over having to discuss anything difficult.
Giving an example, Helwani said that he asked Travis Browne before an interview whether he could ask questions about rumors of his relationship with fellow UFC star Ronda Rousey. Browne checked in with Rousey and okayed the questions, but after the interview blew up Rousey got mad at Helwani for kicking up a shitstorm with his (approved) questioning. This is how Helwani described trying to get back into her good graces:
I reached out to people close to her, I reached out to Travis, I said “You told me this was okay. I never would’ve done it if it wasn’t. I don’t understand.” Nothing. [...] I would never do something she didn’t want me to do. I would never do something that would expose her, or embarrass her. I specifically asked for permission beforehand, which by the way is something you’re told not to do.
Incredibly, once again, Helwani admits to knowing that this isn’t something he should be doing as a journalist, yet going ahead and doing it anyway.
Finally, while Helwani declined to speak about it in-depth, he obliquely confirmed a Twitter rumor that he was thrown into a wall and choked by UFC security two years ago after asking Chuck Liddell if he would fight Jon Jones, saying only that “it got physical.” A reliable source has confirmed the legitimacy of these rumors to Deadspin. (Helwani and the UFC haven’t returned requests for comment.)
The amazing thing here is that despite Helwani’s confessions, the UFC is still the party that comes out looking the worst. Whatever he’s done wrong, none of it has anything to do with him and two colleagues having been tossed from a UFC event, and banned from future UFC events, because he accurately reported news. Maybe the lesson here is an old one: try to ride a pig, and you’ll end up covered in shit.
Update: UFC has restored Helwani’s credential.